The Age of Consent

I’ve always wanted to like George Monbiot. I admire the way he’s built himself up as a successful broadcaster and writer while remaining connected to the leading edge of environmental and social justice campaigning. I identify strongly with his anger for the status quo, with his passion for the idea that ‘another world is possible’. But the problem is that he’s never quite delivered when he writes about solutions. I’ve always found myself wound up by his articles and books, thinking that he’s missing something because of his particular brand of dissent. His complete focus on what’s wrong jars with my way of thinking. Anger can make you blind as to how to find solutions to problems.

So when I got my hands on The Age of Consent I was nervous. Would he deliver this time? Would he give me something to think about going forward rather than finding more that is wrong with the world? Overall, I think yes. I think he’s made an admirable attempt to move the debate about globalisation forward without falling for the other trap so many disappear into — claiming to have all the answers.

Monbiot hangs his analysis and proposals on the idea of the ‘metaphysical mutation’ of Michael Houellebecq’s Atomised. It’s a similar idea to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift in relation to the changing nature of thinking in science — as the old understanding slowly has its foundations eroded and members of the old order swap sides, a new order rushes into its place. Monbiot uses this idea to convince the reader that radical shifts could occur in the global order.

The Age of Consent will make uncomfortable reading for a lot of people in the campaigning movement. For much of the book, Monbiot turns his fire not on the traditional enemy (corporations, capitalism and the USA) but instead on some of the favoured ideas of the campaigners. First he takes on communism, outlining why it can never work for the poor. Then he takes on anarchism, deftly dismantling the idea that it might be an organising principle (!) for the anti-globalisers. He also cuts his way through localisation — a favoured rallying point for more moderate campaigners at the moment.

He then puts forward his ideas in the style of a self declared (and sometimes a little self conscious) manifesto. First there should be a world parliament which could grow gradually and begin without the participation of the US initially. Then Monbiot proposes we should rejuvenate an idea of John Maynard Keynes that was deftly sidelined by the US after the second world war — an International Clearing Union. The final idea is a Fair Trade Organisation to replace the WTO.

The Age of Consent isn’t a new paradigm of thinking but it does move the debate forward and the book is valuable for that. For the first time the global campaigners have a serious hardback to call their own with a set of proposals to work with. What will be interesting is how many people take up Monbiot’s challenge: “That we must seek, before long, to provide a single, coherent programme of alternatives to the concentrated power of the dictatorship of vested interests, is surely evident. You might, with good reason, judge that I have not formulated such a programme, or that I have formulated the wrong one. But simply to reject it is insufficient. You must, as I have suggested, then replace it with a better one.”

The movement’s success will depend on people doing just that.

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